Today, our family had the extreme honor of attending the welcome home ceremony of Echo Troop, 108th Cavalry, in Griffin, Georgia. This was the unit Sgt. Mike Stokely belonged to.
The day began with us all oversleeping and missing church (oops!). It was POURING down rain (which would explain the "oversleeping" on my part - rain knocks me out like nothing else!). Time seemed to drag on ever so slowly.... the welcome home ceremony was supposed to start at 3:00 p.m., but Mike Stokely's father had emailed us to tell us it would be a good idea to get there no later than 2:00 or so, in order to make sure we got a good seat, and to allow for the fact that the 3:00 start time was an approximation, anyway - it's a long drive from Fort Stewart, GA, but who knows if they'd end up there a few minutes early or what. So, given the fact that it was pouring down rain, we decided to leave at noon. Mr. Stokely told us the drive was between an hour to an hour and a half, max ~ we wanted to make real sure we got there in time and allow for "getting lost" time, just in case. Thankfully, we did not get lost. In fact, the rain lightened up considerably, even stopping at times, and it took us just slightly over an hour to make the eighty-mile trek to Griffin. As we drove into Griffin, a group of Patriot Guard Riders roared past, waving at everyone. We enthusiastically waved back... dang it... I didn't have time to grab my camera, though. Later on, after we were at our destination, they zipped past us again... but of course... I didn't have my camera out then, either, dang it.
Anyway, we arrived at the location of the ceremony - a high school auditorium - at approximately 1:45 or so. Hubby Jeff elected to wait inside the auditorium and hopefully save our seats, while the kids and I decided to wait on the sidewalk and cheer our heroes as they marched up the street.
The crowd grew by the minute...the excitement and anticipation was palpable. ROTC guys bearing flags lined either side of the street. Suddenly, my cell phone rang. Hubby informed me that they had just announced inside that (a) they weren't going to let anyone save seats [no surprise there, but had to try, haha] and (b) once the soldiers reached the auditorium, they weren't going to let anyone else in because of the size of the crowd and the limited size of the auditorium. So, my choice was... either cheer them on the streets for 5 minutes, OR go inside, miss the cheering, but see the whole welcome home ceremony!!! Argh! I'd planned on cheering the soldiers as they came into view, then zipping inside real fast to watch the ceremony, even if it meant standing in the back. But... I decided, I'd rather not risk missing out on the ceremony... so me & the kids reluctantly went inside.
Finally, shortly after 3:00, it was time!!!! A man up front in traditional Scottish dress began playing the bagpipes, and our heroes began marching in on either side of the auditorium!!! The crowd EXPLODED with joy!!!!!!! Everyone stood up and cheered, clapped, and hollered. The MINUTE I saw the first soldier walk in (much to the complete chagrin of my family) I completely, totally, utterly LOST IT. I didn't just get misty-eyed... Let me tell you, I stood there SOBBING. I LOST IT bigtime. It was mostly tears of absolute, ecstatic joy that they were home, together with an incredible amount of pride -- but it was also a very keenly-felt, sharp sorrow for those that did not make it home - those who sacrificed their all in service to our country.
Finally, they'd all come in and marched to the front of the auditorium. The ceremony itself was to me a complete blur. I remember vividly the eleven-year-old kid who sang the National Anthem with the voice of an angel. The moment of silence for the fallen, together with the playing of Taps, brought a whole new round of tears as I clutched the special memorial dogtag that Mike Stokely's father had given me as though my life depended on it ~ knowing, somewhere in the back of my mind, that each and every soldier in the 108th CAV had been given an identical tag by Mr. Stokely.
The ceremony lasted about an hour. During that time, I just kept looking up front at all the soldiers, thinking, "These are the guys that we sent a couple hundred Christmas cards to at Christmas... these are the guys that we sent a couple hundred Valentine's cards to at Valentine's day... these are the guys I have worried over and prayed over EVERY DAY for MONTHS... I can't believe I'm really here!" Somehow, SEEING my 'babies' with my own eyes was just amazing for me. I'm always trying to drive home the point that the soldiers we hear about on the news are not just nameless, faceless masses - they are real people with real lives with real families who make great and very real sacrifices on our behalf. I never knew anyone in this unit, I had not "adopted" any specific soldier with them... but considred them ALL "mine" anyway, haha.... seeing them in person was just absolutely overwhelming! I remember a couple who looked, well, like BABIES, so very, very young... one on crutches, one using a cane...
After the ceremony was over, we had to wait to exit the row we were seated in... sort of like when you go to the movies, only way more congested, haha. I was selfishly very frustrated with having to stand there in teh middle of the aisle... dang it, I wanted to run around and tell folks welcome home and shake hands and give hugs and take a bunch of pictures, haha! But... it worked out perfectly. As we were trapped in the aisle, waiting to exit, I saw a soldier walk through the aisle behind us to his waiting family. I watched their reunion (i know, I"m so nosy...but there are few things more beautiful than the reunion of a soldier with his or her family). After a while, he happened to turn towards the front of the building and I saw his nametag on his uniform... and it was none other than the Sgt. who Robert Stokely had given me as a "point of contact" for mailing all those Christmas & Valentine's cards to!!! I had gone to the homecoming not "expecting' to meet anyone, but you KNOW I prayed a LOT that I would somehow, please God, at least get to meet this one particular Sgt!!!! Even if only for a moment! So when I saw his name tag, I gasped & blurted out, "Oh my Gosh! You're Sgt. Anzano!!!!!" He kinda looked at me like I was nuts, haha - then I babbled on, "We sent you Christmas cards! I'm Kat from Loganville!" (Thankfully, he remembered, haha, or I woulda REALLY felt dumb!). Needless to say, I told him welcome home and gave him a great big ole hug!!!! I think a certain "Guardian Angel" (who, I'm certain, is resposible for many interesting coincidences throughout this journey) set this up for us! (Thanks, Mike!)
After - and ONLY after - this exchange had taken place did our row begin to move. I walked out in the lobby of the auditorium and, very uncharictaristically for shy, quiet, wallflower me, began shaking hands and giving out hugs and saying welcome home right & left, haha! I saw Mr. Stokely being interviewed by a news reporter... I gotta remember to watch the news tonight, haha... after the interview was over, me & family went over and gave him a hug, too - I introduced hubby and our kids to him. I couldn't help but think (and this thought had run through my mind often thru the whole event) that for the families of the fallen who were present...this had to be an incredibly difficult day. Could I attend a welcome home ceremony if my son was not returning??? I think I would... but my gosh... I cannot even begin to imagine how difficult it must have been for those families!!!!! Definitely a bittersweet moment, to be sure.
I am so, so glad we went to this homecoming ceremony. I would not have missed it for the world. I know it also made a strong impression on my kids... It was good for them to see this. It was good for us all to be there to honor our heroes.
In an email Mr. Stokely sent me a few minutes ago, he sums it all up the best:
MISSION COMPLETE - TROOP E 108TH IS HOME.
Welcome home. [PHOTOS OF THE DAY CAN BE SEEN BY CLICKING HERE]
1:54 a.m., May 8, 2006 - update:
"THE OUTLAW" & PLATOON ARE HOME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! (Well, at Ft. Stewart, anyway, if not completely "home" yet - back in Georgia, at least!!!) [For those who may be new to this blog, "Outlaw" is the Georgia 48th BCT soldier our family adopted from a soldier-support organization~ during the course of the deployment, we informally semi-adopted his whole platoon, as well.]
I went to bed last night around 11:30, thinking, "Oh my gosh, between the 108th CAV homecoming I went to today and starting a new job tomorrow, and WAITING for Outlaw to call tonight, there is NO WAY I'll EVER be able to sleep!!!!" Well, I was wrong - I passed out within about 15 minutes of going to bed.
Then, weirdly enough, for no particular reason, about five minutes before my phone rang at 1:29 a.m., my eyes popped open and I was WIDE AWAKE. I thought, "Well, golly - he oughta done been landed by now!"
No sooner than I thought that - you guessed it - My cell phone rang!!!! And there he was, saying: "Momma Kat?! Is that you?!" I was so happy - somehow I managed not to cry this time though, hahaha! So, he talked to me for a few minutes, then to Jeff for a few minutes, then to me for a few minutes again.
OK, NOW I can go back to sleep, haha... now my day is complete!